Picking Citrus and Presidents in Florida
By Dan Balz
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg remarked a few weeks ago, "Iowa picks corn. New Hampshire picks presidents." That may be the view from the Granite State, but others in his party know better.
For years, the key contest in determining the Republican nomination battle has come here in South Carolina, not in snowy New Hampshire. But that may not be the case any longer this year. Florida, not South Carolina, may be the most important contest this year.
South Carolina established its influence through a series of important primaries over the past quarter century. In that time, as the South increasingly became the party's most important region, the importance of South Carolina's primary has grown.
George W. Bush effectively stopped John McCain's dreams of winning the nomination here in 2000 after one of the toughest and nastiest campaigns anyone had seen. In 1996, Bob Dole rebounded after losing New Hampshire to Pat Buchanan with a victory in South Carolina that set him on an unstoppable path to the nomination.
In 1988, Bush's father defeated Dole in South Carolina after the two had split Iowa and New Hampshire. Ronald Reagan's victory over John Connally here in 1980 snuffed out any hopes for the big-money Texan and kept Reagan moving toward victory.
Those past nomination battles continued after South Carolina, sometimes long after, but in it was clear by the end that the outcome here proved decisive in settling the competition. That's why Saturday's GOP primary here long has been seen as a potentially pivotal date on the 2008 political calendar.
As Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) put it at a rally for McCain here Thursday noon, "South Carolina stands in a special place in the primary field and it always has."
South Carolina Republicans have jealously guarded their position in the calendar. The Saturday primary was established earlier as the tone-setter for other southern contests at a time when Super Tuesday was largely a southern competition.
Katon Dawson, the current South Carolina Republican chairman, cited that tradition last August when he moved this year's primary to Jan. 19 as a way to protect against poaching by Floridians of both parties who had decided to advance the date of their primary.
As early as 2006, McCain began building bridges to the party establishment here, convinced that if he could overcome their opposition and win the primary this time, his hopes for the nomination would be secured.
Mitt Romney, around that same time, began to organize and invest here, believing the same. He would later learn that, of all the early states, South Carolina would prove most resistant to a candidate who happened to be a Mormon.
Rudy Giuliani tested the waters extensively here, convinced that his leadership credentials and his hawkishness on terrorism would find a receptive home in a state with a rich military heritage.
Fred Thompson saw South Carolina as part of his southern base and perhaps the first state where he could demonstrate his vote-getting appeal. Mike Huckabee believed the same thing.
But the Republican race has turned out to be far different than anyone imagined. In what is turning out to be the year that proves the exception to the rule, South Carolina may be surrendering its position as the decisive date on the GOP calendar.
Strategists in many of the Republican campaigns long believed that Florida's Jan. 29 primary would be the battle that truly established the pecking order in the nomination battle. They are even more convinced of that now, after three different winners in Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan.
A McCain victory here on Saturday might result in South Carolina being seen eventually as king-maker in the Republican race -- but only if a victory provides him the momentum to go to win Florida, and momentum has proved to be a hard commodity to capture in the primaries this year.
A victory by Romney might do the same -- but he has effectively conceded first place in the state and has flown off to Nevada, where he hopes to win Saturday's presidential caucuses.
A victory for Huckabee or Thompson would need ratification elsewhere. And Giuliani long ago realized his one hope to make good on his late-state strategy was to win Florida. He is not a factor in South Carolina this week -- as he was not a factor in Iowa or New Hampshire or Michigan.
So everyone is pointing to Florida. Giuliani has been camped out there, his first and last-stand state. Romney plan to head to Florida immediately after leaving Nevada this weekend and has dumped money into television there this week. If there is any bounce from his Michigan victory, Romney now hopes it will propel him into Florida.
McCain's team likewise knows that he cannot pop any champagne corks just by winning here on Saturday. After what he went through in 2000, victory here would be especially sweet, but no cause for coasting.
After Saturday's South Carolina primary, there will be a break of 10 days until Florida's contest, and that will mean the longest and most fully-engaged event on the Republican calendar so far this year. South Carolina's political tradition has drawn the attention it deserves this week. But its primary may ultimately be just the gateway to an even more consequential battle on Jan. 29 in the Sunshine State.
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